In writing about cars yesterday, I was reminded of an incident a couple of weeks ago. A certain man I’m not going to name tweeted Greta Thunberg to ask for her email address, so he could send her details of his car collection and each car’s emissions. Thunberg’s withering reply is now legendary, and a matter of days later said cars were impounded by the police anyway.
I don’t really want to give this story any oxygen, but it is perhaps the defining moment of what is sometimes called petro-masculinity – the connection between fossil fuels and ideas about what it is to be a man. The term was coined by the social scientist Cara Daggett in 2018 and quickly transcended its academic origins. You know it when you see it. American men who fill their social media profiles with pictures of cars, guns and meat. The way that the Toyota Prius became an object of hate for drivers, epitomised in the publicity stunts for Amazon’s Grand Tour programme. The friend who told me that he would have bought an electric car, but “didn’t want to be mistaken for the kind of person who drives an electric car.”
A lot of this is performative and reactionary. It’s an exaggerated and preposterous assertion of masculinity, but there’s more to it than people being dickheads on the internet. It’s a more complex phenomenon than it might initially appear, and I think there are a number of things going on at once.
Some of it must simply be to do with power. Fossil fuels are noisy and fiery and impose themselves on the world. Their power is visible and indisputable. You can gun your petrol car and it feels powerful because it is. If you are attracted to power or feel powerless for some reason, then fossil fuels offer access to power in a very literal way. Fossil fuels get work done. At a time when traditional male roles are changing, and sources of male pride and identity are shifting, I can understand a subconscious role that fossil fuels might be playing here.
Connected to that change, another big factor here is nostalgia. We saw this in Donald Trump, who often talked about ‘bringing things back’. America’s apparently AWOL greatness was the one on the hat, but other things he wanted to bring back included firing squads, torture, and Gone With the Wind. Coal was another one, and Trump made a lot of promises about the return of coal that he couldn’t possibly deliver. The things Trump promised weren’t good things. They were assorted ideas from ‘the old days’ when things were better. At a time of disorienting change, there is comfort in things being familiar – even if that’s gas boilers and petrol cars.
Ironically then, you could argue that petro-masulinity is a form of climate anxiety. It’s certainly not simple denial. As Daggett says, we could call it climate refusal. “Refusal is active. Angry. It demands struggle.” It’s a reaction to the changes of decarbonisation and de-industrialisation. Climate change threatens to take away things that make men feel powerful – things like big slabs of meat, and cars that go vroom. It’s not really surprising that there’s some push-back against that.
There is also an element of protecting privilege in the mix as well. In her book How Women Can Save the Planet, Anne Karpf writes about masculinity and how “men benefit from the economic system on which fossil fuels are based. Climate denial serves to protect their interests.” Equality can feel like disempowerment to the privileged.
What to do about it? Like any cultural norm, change will be gradual and I don’t have any radical suggestions. Parenting and education certainly play a part. Boys are brought up playing with toy cars and toy guns, and certain ideas become part of male identity. There’s nothing intrinsically male about these things, and parents have a role in modelling more holistic and healthy ideas about masculinity.
Toxic ideas need to be challenged, and I love to see an odious public figure felled by Greta Thunberg’s righteous scorn. But belittling fragile men is likely to be counter-productive and most of the work on this isn’t going to be high profile and in the public sphere. It’s going to be men raising their game with their friends, quietly modelling something different. Change moves at the speed of relationships, and the most important thing is to talk about it.
One thing I do know is that we should take petro-masculinity seriously as a phenomenon, even if we don’t take its personalities seriously. “Fossil fuels mean more than profit” writes Daggett. “Fossil fuels also contribute to making identities, which poses risks for post-carbon energy politics.”